May 22, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
- Editor's Note: Experimentation with the Newsletter Format
- Opening Note: David Edery on Desperate Housewives game
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Henry Jenkins on "Playing Around with Desperate Housewives"\
EDITOR'S NOTE: This week,we will be experimenting with the format of the weekly newsletter to make it of optimal value to our faculty and corporate partners. Originally conceived as a newsletter of industry developments with links to relevant stories, the focus of the newsletter has been shifting throughout the past few months to instead be an internal conversation among C3 faculty and corporate partners. Initial feedback has been that faculty involvement and original writing for internal communication is of greater value than news aggregation. We hope to keep that news aggregation through pointing to stories from the week on our blog, with relevant links to entries.
Since we don't get to see each other face-to-face nearly enough, we hope this newsletter can provide a chance for the C3 team to provide each other with original research, observations, and work, as well as updates about new projects that faculty may be working on or comments about new industry developments. To make this a conversation, we are also encouraging anyone who has a reaction to the content of the newsletter to provide that feedback for the next week's newsletter.Any responses to pieces in the newsletter should be sent to me at email@example.com.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
New Desperate Housewives Video Game
By: David Edery
One of the things that caught my attention at E3 was the Desperate
Housewives video game
tm> , by Buena Vista Games and Liquid Entertainment. It's a "sims-style"
game that seeks to recreate the intrigue of the TV show. Players can
customize their player, their home furniture, etc, when they aren't
indulging in morally questionable behavior.
When I first heard about this game, I thought it sounded like a promising attempt to reach outside the "core" gamer market, but was worried that the gameplay would prove stale. Fortunately, the demo I witnessed at E3 dispelled those concerns. The experience seemed quite rich; for example, I watched a player antagonize a character from the TV show, after which they broke into the character's house (to "dig up dirt" that might help protect them from that newly-antagonized character). The player was caught sneaking around (they knocked over a vase), but then lied their way out of the situation (as tracked by a "composure meter.") Not bad. Let's hope that the rest of the game isn't an endless repetition of that scenario with minor variations.
The game progresses in episode format, though I never found out if it will actually be distributed "episodically", or if you'll get everything in one package.
Scott Tobis, one of the TV series' writers, wrote the script for the game, and reported that "[he wants] players to feel like they've found a bonus episode of the show." I would have taken it a step further, if possible: players should feel like they've experienced an important part of the show. They should feel like they'd be missing something if they didn't play the game (though people who don't play the game should still be able to enjoy the TV series.)
Thinking bigger: what if the game were to be distributed episodically (in time with the TV show) and each game episode clarified aspects of the TV show? What if players were informed that their behavior, in aggregate, could somehow impact an upcoming episode (for example, if a majority of them performed an action, the results of that action would be reflected in the show?) What if the aggregate behavior of the group dictated the actions of a special guest on the show? Just a random idea. Tough to justify in the beginning, I know, but if the game is distributed episodically and proves very successful, something like this could be implemented.
This is where the real power of cross-licensing can be found. A high-quality Desperate Housewives PC game may, at best, sell a few million copies. But an episodically delivered game can turn into a large and reliable income stream. And a game that enables players to fundamentally impact the TV story can turn marginally-interested watchers into die-hard fans who wouldn't miss a show if their lives depended on it. Shows like American Idol have given us a taste of how successful you can be when you indulge consumer desire to participate in media. Games are the perfect platform for participation -- it's what they're made for!
It's time we stopped thinking of games as simply another neutral platform on which to dump licenses (the Lord of the Rings franchise springs to mind), and started thinking of games as a space via which to engage the consumer in new and exciting ways. There's no better platform for indulging participation, individually or in aggregate. And there's no reason why that participation can't be (eventually) translated into every other medium -- be it television, comic book, etc.
----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Warner Bros./BitTorrent, Yahoo Telemundo, other partnerships developed The last couple of weeks has led to many changes in the industry, including the development of Yahoo Telemundo, Bravo's new Broadband channel BrilliantButCancelled.com, Warner Brothers' partnership with BitTorrent on Web-based downloads of DVD releases, etc.http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/2006/05/tracking_moves_in_the_tv_indus.html
Aayush Iyer's primer on transmedia. Aayush Iyer, a blogger from the publishing industry, writes about the need to determine a definition for the word transmedia. Iyer begins this process, putting a strong emphasis on his own journalism background and the importance of understanding the capabilities of video, print, and Web.http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/2006/05/what_is_transmedia.html
Fan Generated Content and The Skeletor Show. Fans on YouTube have launched a series of short cartoons using content from the original Masters of the Universeto structure a narrative from the villainous Skeletor's point-of-view. Our blog about this fan-generated content is located at
Xbox 360 Firmware Hacked. A new firmware patch by hackers into the Xbox 360 will bypass disc verification such as DRM so that copied discs will play.http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/2006/05/xbox_360_firmware_hacked.html
--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------
Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog
--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
Playing Around with "Desperate Housewives"
By: Henry Jenkins
A new PC-game, created by Buena Vista Games, based on the ABC television series, Desperate Housewives, was one of the titles which generated a great deal of buzz at E3 a few weeks ago. The game is loosely modeled on The Sims in that it involves the simulation of domestic life within a suburban community (the world of Wisteria Lane as depicted on the series); the players adopt the role of a previously unknown housewife who awakes one day with amnesia and seeks to find out more about who she is and how she fits within the community. USA Today [http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2006-03-23-housewives-game_x.htm] qoutes Mary Schuyler, the producer of the title, "As fans of the show would expect, the game is loaded with gossip, betrayal, murder and sex ? you know, all the things women like." The game seems to embody a number of trends which are of central interest to C3 participants and thus warrents closer examination:
1. The Desperate Housewives game represents another interesting experiment in transmedia storytelling. Scott Sanford Tobis, one of the TV series' writers, wrote more than 13,000 lines of original dialogue and structured the plots for the game. In an interview with USA Today, Tobis described the game as an additional episode to the series, offering new insights into the characters and introducing new situations into the story. Danny Elfman's music from the series plays throughout the game and narration is provided by actress Brenda Strong (as late housewife Mary Alice Young). The game's locations are modeled precisely on the familiar neighborhood from the hit series.
As such, the game represents a continuation of a trend which I identify in my forthcoming book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide [http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0814742815/sr=8-1/qid=1148236331/ref=pd_bbs_1/103-9086796-6884621?%5Fencoding=UTF8]: "A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best -- so that a story might be introdced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self contained so you don't need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice-versa. Any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole. Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption. Redundancy burns up fan interest and causes franchises to fail. Offering new levels of insight and experience refreshes the franchise and sustains consumer loyalty."
We can see further evidence of this trend at play through the upfront announcements of the major networks this past week: several of the networks [http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/16/business/media/16adco.html?ex=1148443200&en=87abb4912c6b2bed&ei=5070&emc=eta1]spent as much time discussing their digital strategies as they spent talking about their broadcast strategies.
Several of the CMS graduate students -- notably Geoffrey Long (who is doing a case study of the Jim Henson Company's recent ventures) and Ivan Askwith (who is comparing transmedia strategies for Lost and Veronica Mars) -- are doing thesis work which builds on this concept of transmedia storytelling.
2. The Desperate Housewives game represents the latest phase in a renewed effort by the games industry to attract more female players. Let's face it: pretty much every male in America who has the slightest interest in games is probably already playing. All that the games industry can hope to do is to redivy up the pie when it comes to the core male demographic: it's hard to even imagine games companies succeeding in getting men to spend more hours each week playing games. All future growth has to come through either keeping players engaged with games later in life or attracting more female players.
Indeed, there has been a dramatic growth in the number of women playing games over the past decade, as was marked by a conference hosted by UCLA [http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20060518/dillon_01.shtml] in conjunction with E3, which commerated the 10th year anniversary of an historic event which I co-hosted at MIT with my Media Lab colleague Justine Cassell -- From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games [http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=3929]. For two days, more than fifty leading feminist games scholars and designers met to talk about the emergence of the female games market and what it meant not simply for the economic future of the games industry but also in terms of women's access to technologies and technologically related skills. Again and again, we learned that women outnumber men in online and causal games sectors and are a growing segment of the games market overall. Women still spend less time playing games and see games as less central to their cultural lives. In other words, few women consider themselves to be "gamers" but a growing percentage of them do play games.
Mimi Ito, a USC anthropologist who does work on games culture in Japan, argues that a key factor in closing the gender gap among gamers there had to do with the integration of game content into larger "media mixes", such as the transmedia strategies which have emerged around hot anime and manga properties. She argues that girls embraced games as another source of content that interested them as it flowed organically from one medium to the next. In that regard, the use of the already successful Desperate Housewives brand to create a space for older female players makes perfect sense.
It also makes sense, given the appeal of casual games for women, to base the game heavily around a series of mini-games, including the integration of cooking challenges and card games as core activities within a larger game framework. This will allow the Desperate Housewives title to build a bridge between causal games which require short investments of time into larger game play experiences. Several of the female players at the conference remarked that they didn't play longer titles because they didn't feel like they had the time to devote to really exploring them, yet they found themselves playing "just one more game" with their favorite casual titles and thus playing for several hours at a sitting. Such women may well be ready to move into somewhat more extended game play experiences if the themes and structure of the game facilitate their interests.
3. The Desperate Housewives game represents an important new effort at product integration in games. A Partnership with Massive will result in an unprecidented amount of ingame advertising and product placement. Here's what IGN [http://pc.ign.com/articles/707/707757p1.html] had to say about these aspects of the game: "Most of the products in the house will be real-world name brands. Thanks to a deal with Sears, washers, dryers, and vacuum cleaners will all have familiar logos on them. When your character walks out to the mailbox, coupons will arrive from time to time. Thanks to a print option, you can take these coupons to their respective store (in the real world) and use them towards a purchase.... Not only bringing ads to the table, Massive has also incorporated a system to stream ABC content onto the TVs within the game itself." These strategies are consistent with the recommendations which C3 researcher Ilya Vedrashko made in our white paper on game-based advertising last term.
At the UCLA conference, I argued that advergaming would be an important force in expanding the female market for games. Right now, advertisers are seeking out games to reach the young male demographic which has been abandoning television. Yet, historically, women are the key decision-makers shaping many of the most heavily advertised brands. Those brands are also going to want to deploy games to reach consumers and they are going to be searching out new kinds of game content which reflects the tastes and interests of their desired demographics. While games publishers may have an interest in continuing to tap their most hardcore consumers, advergaming will have a different incentive -- to broaden the game market to allow them to reach their most desired demographics. Witness the participation of Sears and other domestically-focused brands in the Desperate Housewives game.
4. The Desperate Housewives Game represents another important step towards an episodic model for the development of game content. For some time, observers of the games industry have questioned whether the current models for content will serve the interests of even the core gamer market for much longer. The average age of gamers pushes older each year simply because people are continuing to play games later in life than anyone would have imagined. The generation which grew up playing Super Mario Brothers is now entering young adulthood. They now need to manage their game play time alongside expectations from spouses and offspring. Women often complain that the units of time demanded by most games are impossible to negotiate around the expectations they face within their families. All of this points towards the desirability of developing games which come in smaller units of playtime.
Across this same period, leading thinkers in the games industry have suggested that episodic content -- games structured more like television series -- might prove both creatively interesting and commercialy viable. C3 particpant David Edery [http://www.edery.org/2006/04/in-defense-of-episodic-content/#more-191] recently entered into the industry debate about episodic content. What he has to say on this topic warrents a close read.
Details about the episodic structure of Desperate Housewives remain vague, as does the business plan which will support this content: early interviews describe the game as composed of eight smaller episodes which combine to form a larger story arc, each representing roughly two hours of game play. The most likely scenario is that these episodes will all ship as levels within a single game unit, but there has been speculation that there may be opportunities to refresh the game content over time, as occurs in many massively multiplayer games, especially given the ability to provide streaming content from ABC directly into the game world. One can imagine game content which gets updated in response to new information unveiled in the aired episodes, thus changing the game world throughout the television season. Such steps would insure not only viewer loyalty to the television series (in hopes of new content updates for the game) but also persistent engagement with the game itself (with new interest delivered with each aired installment). Such tight coordination between the television series and the game may be premature given the current infrastructure and business models, but the Desperate Housewives property is certainly a rich space to experiment with new forms of episodic content.
Every so often, a media property emerges which allows us to glimpse future directions for branded entertainment. Desperate Housewives looks like such an example: one that helps us to take inventory of core trends which are going to be shaping the media industry in the next few years.
Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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